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USDA Dietary Guidelines: What’s in It for You?

USDA Dietary Guidelines: What’s in It for You? 
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Americans are advised to eat more foods that provide healthy nutrients with fewer calories, and to eat fewer high-calorie, low-nutrient foods
The release of the updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans couldn’t have come at a better time. With over two-thirds of American adults and more than one-third of children overweight or obese, “this is a crisis that we can no longer ignore,” according to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Overcoming obesity

To tackle obesity, which contributes to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases, the new 2010 Guidelines emphasize enjoying food more, but eating less overall. Additionally, Americans are advised to eat more foods that provide healthy nutrients with fewer calories, and to eat fewer high-calorie, low-nutrient foods. This focus, which may be new to many people, highlights a concept called nutrient density.

Get dense

Nutrient density refers to the amount of nutrients in a given volume of food. Consider one cup of carrots and one cup of regular soda. They are the same volume, but the carrots pack a far bigger nutritional punch. The soda provides lots of sugar, but not much else. Carrots provide fiber, calcium, potassium, vitamin C, folate, vitamin K, and countless other nutrients, including carotenes, which are linked with lower risk of several chronic diseases. You get all of this for about half the calories of a cup of soda. Carrots are a much more nutrient-dense food.

  • Nutrient density is a perfect fit with the new Guidelines, which promote:
  • Avoiding oversized portions, particularly when it comes to processed foods
  • Filling at least half of your plate with vegetables and fruit, among the most nutrient-dense foods
  • Switching from whole and 2% milk to fat-free or low-fat (1%) options
  • Drinking water instead of sugary drinks

Something for everyone

If extra pounds are not a concern, there are plenty of other ways to improve eating habits. Another new focus in the Guidelines is getting people to eat less salt (sodium). Many of us assume blood pressure is the biggest concern, but this dietary devil can do a number on health, with excess sodium contributing to decreased bone density, poorer kidney function, and damaged blood vessels, even in the absence of high blood pressure.

Fortunately, nutrient-dense foods, including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and beans, tend to be naturally low in sodium. When you do eat the occasional processed food, especially soup, bread, and frozen meals, compare labels and choose the foods with lower numbers.

Children and young adults should limit sodium to 2,300 mg per day or less, while people 51 and older, African Americans, and those with high blood pressure, kidney disease, or diabetes, all of whom are considered at higher risk for sodium-related health effects, should get no more than 1,500 mg per day.

Forget the fat phobia

The latest Guidelines have moved away from a low-fat mantra, too, instead focusing on healthier fats. It’s still recommended we consume 10% or fewer of total calories from saturated fat, which are found in animal foods and partially hydrogenated fats, but now we are urged to include plenty of mono- and polyunsaturated fats. To find these healthier fats, try fish, nuts, seeds, olives and olive oil, avocadoes, and liquid vegetable oils.

(US Dept of Health & Human Services Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Available at: www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/. Accessed February 3, 2011.)

Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.


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